Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?
Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?
As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision…
It’s fairly easy to start throwing abuse at the US space agency these days. Although NASA has been at the brunt of much critique over the years, the volume of the protests seem to be getting louder.
On the one hand, this isn’t surprising; we are fast approaching the retirement of the space shuttle (next year), and there will be a shortage of human-rated US launch systems to maintain the nation’s presence in space until the first Constellation Program launch in 2015. Five years of depending on Russia to get astronauts into space is a problem on so many levels, forcing NASA to think quick (over a few years) to find a solution. NASA has also been suffering attacks from ex-administrators, highlighting mismanagement and the squandering of funds. To an extent, the politics can defend mismanagement, citing space exploration as an expensive venture where new technology is being developed (is there little wonder that project managers slip up?). However, when economic times are tough, and every $2 million has to be accounted for by government departments, waste becomes a very big issue.
To make matters worse, on Tuesday, a carbon emissions monitoring satellite failed after launch, dropping into the ocean off the coast of Antarctica. Although launch failures come with the territory of space exploration, the Orbital Carbon Observatory (OCO) loss is a damaging sting for NASA. The OCO cost over a quarter of a billion dollars ($270 million) to develop.
What’s at the root cause of these troubles? NASA was never intended as a long-term space agency. That’s according to the authors of the “Unified Space Vision” (as opposed to the 2004 “Vision of Space Exploration”) in any case. I can understand the intent of this paper, but unfortunately, I think it oversteps the mark.
I will take the time to study the detail of Buzz et al.’s suggestions for the Unified Space Vision, as I’m sure the trio will share a valuable insight to how NASA should progress, but I’m already frustrated by some of the arguments picked out by the New Scientist coverage of the letter (a cut-down version of the draft letter will be sent to President Obama for his consideration).
The gist of the argument is that NASA lacks direction, and since we’ve already been to the Moon, why do we want to go back? Since the Apollo Program was cancelled in the early 1970’s, NASA’s mission was pretty much complete. It’s one and only aim, to get man to the Moon (thereby winning the Space Race), had been achieved. What then? What do you do with a space agency when it’s completed its mission? Rather than closing down the agency, it trundled on and gradually found its own direction, researching and developing space science technologies, pushing robots (not man) into space.
In part, I believe the importance of a lunar return mission may have been over-hyped, but the Moon remains a very important stepping stone for the future of manned space exploration. I would argue that although NASA won the Space Race, the US government failed to realise the importance of a manned lunar presence. If space funding continued at Apollo-era levels, a lunar colony wouldn’t be a pipe dream in the 21st Century; we’d still be there. These are very easy things to say in hindsight, at the end of the day, with Soviet power crumbling in the 1970’s, the threat of strategic struggle for the stars was something reserved for 007 movies, not real life. NASA had fulfilled its task, planting the US flag on the Moon, cut-backs were inevitable. The Moon was no longer of political importance.
That said, it would appear President Obama has seen the advantage of getting US astronauts back to the Moon by 2020. It was announced via Aviation Weekly that:
The fiscal 2010 NASA budget outline to be released by the Obama Administration Feb. 26 adds almost $700 million to the out-year figure proposed in the fiscal 2009 budget request submitted by former President Bush, and sticks with the goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.
The $18.7 billion that Obama will request for NASA – up from $18.026 billion for fiscal 2010 in the last Bush budget request – does not include the $1 billion NASA will receive in the $787 billion stimulus package that President Barack Obama signed Feb. 16.
Aviation Week has learned that in addition to the human-lunar return, Obama wants to continue robotic exploration with probes to Mars and other Solar System destinations, as well as a space telescope to probe deeper into the universe. — Frank Morring, Jr., Aviation Week
We’ll see if Aldrin’s Unified Space Vision makes a difference, but it would appear President Obama remains very motivated to see an American back on the Moon in a decade.
Source: New Scientist